- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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When the Detroit Tigers added Miguel Cabrera to an already imposing lineup last week, you could practically hear the hearts pound and feel the temples throb in Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago and Kansas City.
"I'll bet there are some left-handed pitchers that aren't too excited in the American League,'' said Boston manager Terry Francona.
Forget about Cabrera's girth for a minute and consider what he's accomplished before his 25th birthday. In September, he became the third-youngest player in history to amass 500 career RBIs. Only Mel Ott and Ted Williams did it sooner. From 2004 through last season, Cabrera ranked fourth in the National League in batting average at .318, seventh in homers with 126 and second to Albert Pujols with 461 RBIs. His numbers compare favorably with Alex Rodriguez's and Hank Aaron's at a similar stage in their careers.
Factor in the recent addition of Edgar Renteria to free Carlos Guillen to play first base, as well as the acquisition of Jacque Jones to play left field, and Detroit general manager David Dombrowski has done a surgical job of upgrading a batting order that wasn't too shabby to begin with.
We realize, of course, that it's Dec. 12 and lots more moves will be made between now and the start of spring training. But as of this moment, here are our best five and worst five lineups in baseball:
1. Detroit Tigers
Current batting order: (1) Curtis Granderson, CF; (2) Placido Polanco, 2B; (3) Miguel Cabrera, 3B; (4) Gary Sheffield, DH; (5) Magglio Ordonez, RF; (6) Carlos Guillen, 1B; (7) Edgar Renteria, SS; (8) Pudge Rodriguez, C; (9) Jacque Jones, LF.
The Tigers ranked third in the majors with 887 runs last year despite tailing off after the All-Star break when Sheffield missed considerable time with a shoulder injury. He underwent surgery on the shoulder in October.
Sheffield will have plenty of help in 2008. Granderson is one of four players in history to record 20 homers, doubles, triples and stolen bases in the same season. Ordonez finished second to A-Rod in the AL MVP balloting. Renteria hit .332 with a .390 on-base percentage for Atlanta. And Cabrera already has two Silver Slugger Awards and four All-Star appearances on his résumé.
The Tigers are a nice blend of power and contact hitting. In 37 combined major league seasons, Sheffield, Ordonez and Guillen don't have a single 100-strikeout season.
2. New York Yankees
Current batting order: (1) Johnny Damon, LF; (2) Derek Jeter, SS; (3) Bobby Abreu, RF; (4) Alex Rodriguez, 3B; (5) Jorge Posada, C; (6) Hideki Matsui or Jason Giambi, DH; (7) Robinson Cano, 2B; (8) Wilson Betemit or Shelley Duncan, 1B; (9) Melky Cabrera, CF.
New York's core players are getting older, but they looked quite spry last year on the way to leading the majors in runs (968), batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.366) and slugging percentage (.463).
The philosophy remains the same in the Bronx: Wear 'em down, then take 'em deep. The Yankees ranked fourth in the majors with 637 walks, and were the only AL club to hit 200 homers.
New York's veterans sure can grind out an at-bat. Abreu ranked third in the majors behind Reggie Willits and Jack Cust with an average of 4.38 pitches per plate appearance, and Damon was close behind at 4.30.
3. Boston Red Sox
Current batting order: (1) Dustin Pedroia, 2B; (2) Kevin Youkilis, 1B; (3) David Ortiz, DH; (4) Manny Ramirez, LF; (5) Mike Lowell, 3B; (6) J.D. Drew, RF; (7) Jason Varitek, C; (8) Jacoby Ellsbury, CF; (9) Julio Lugo, SS.
Will Lowell hit .324 with 120 RBIs again? Probably not. Is Varitek due to fall off a cliff one of these years after 1,142 games behind the plate? Probably so.
But Pedroia and Youkilis warmed to the spotlight in October, and Drew should improve on his performance now that he's adjusted to a new league. And good luck finding a more formidable 3-4 combination than Ortiz and Ramirez.
As for the question of who plays center field -- Ellsbury or Coco Crisp? -- the answer will play out in the coming weeks.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
Current batting order: (1) Jimmy Rollins, SS; (2) Shane Victorino, CF; (3) Chase Utley, 2B; (4) Ryan Howard, 1B; (5) Pat Burrell, LF; (6) Jayson Werth, RF; (7) Wes Helms or Greg Dobbs, 3B; (8) Carlos Ruiz, C.
The Phillies led the NL in runs, walks and slugging percentage, while producing their second straight Most Valuable Player. Rollins' .331 career on-base percentage is subpar for a leadoff man, but last year he had more extra-base hits than Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright and Albert Pujols.
Howard, who's averaged 52 home runs, 143 RBIs and 190 strikeouts the past two seasons, is baseball's quintessential all-or-nothing guy, and Utley might have won the MVP award if he hadn't missed a month with a broken hand.
The loss of Aaron Rowand through free agency would hurt. GM Pat Gillick's biggest offseason challenge, besides improving the pitching, is finding another bat at third base or in right field.
Current batting order: (1) Willy Taveras, CF; (2) Troy Tulowitzki, SS; (3) Matt Holliday, LF; (4) Todd Helton, 1B; (5) Garrett Atkins, 3B; (6) Brad Hawpe, RF; (7) Jayson Nix, 2B; (8) Yorvit Torrealba, C.
Is it sacrilegious to rank two NL clubs in the top five?
Cleveland merited some consideration, but the Indians ranked 23rd in the majors in runs and 25th in OPS after the All-Star break. If the Indians are going to be an offensive force, they need Travis Hafner to stop trying to yank balls into the right field seats and start hitting the ball to all fields.
The Rockies, of course, benefit from playing 81 games in Denver. But they were a respectable 14th in the majors in runs on the road last season -- right behind Cleveland. Atkins hit 15 of his 25 homers on the road, and Helton and Holliday both hit .300 away from Coors.
Now that the Rockies have lost Kazuo Matsui to free agency, traded Jamey Carroll and missed out on Mark Loretta and Tad Iguchi, GM Dan O'Dowd has to do something at second base. David Eckstein, perhaps?
While San Diego, Arizona and Houston all merit consideration and the Chicago White Sox were absolutely dreadful in 2007, here's what life looks like at the opposite end of the spectrum:
26. Minnesota Twins
Current lineup: (1) Alexi Casilla, 2B; (2) Brendan Harris, 3B; (3) Joe Mauer, C; (4) Michael Cuddyer, RF; (5) Justin Morneau, 1B; (6) Delmon Young, LF; (7) Jason Kubel or Craig Monroe, DH; (8) Nick Punto, SS; (9) Jason Tyner, Jason Pridie or Denard Span, CF.
The Twins finished last in the majors with 427 extra-base hits in 2007, and the activity thus far has consisted of Torii Hunter's leaving for Anaheim, Young's coming over from Tampa by trade and Monroe's signing a one-year contract.
Young has lot of potential, but he might want to take a pitch once in a while. According to Stats Inc., Young took 1,484 swings last year in Tampa Bay. The only player in the last 20 years who swung at more pitches was Alfonso Soriano, who took 1,519 hacks for the 2002 Yankees.
Morneau and Mauer need to pick up the pace after big dropoffs in 2007. Mauer appeared in only 109 games because of a quadriceps injury and a hernia. Cuddyer, bothered by a thumb injury, hit only 16 homers in 587 at-bats.
The good news? If Kubel keeps hitting the way he did in August and September, he'll quickly erase the memory of Rondell White.
The Twins could easily escape this list, but it'll hinge on general manager Bill Smith's making an upgrade or two. If Minnesota doesn't acquire Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp or Melky Cabrera in a Johan Santana deal, the affordable center field options include Corey Patterson and Kenny Lofton. Not great, but still better than what the Twins have right now.
27. Pittsburgh Pirates
Current batting order: (1) Nyjer Morgan or Nate McLouth, CF; (2) Jack Wilson, SS; (3) Freddy Sanchez, 2B; (4) Jason Bay, LF; (5) Adam LaRoche, 1B; (6) Xavier Nady, RF; (7) Jose Bautista, 3B; (8) Ronny Paulino, C.
The Pirates have too many players hitting outside their comfort zones. Wilson, who'll probably bat second, should be hitting eighth. Sanchez, who hits third, is better suited for second. And the question of whether Bay is a bona fide cleanup man depends on which version you get -- the 2005 and 2006 All-Star or the .247-21-84 model of last season.
Pittsburgh hasn't had a 40-homer man since Willie Stargell belted 44 in 1973. Don't look for that to change anytime soon.
28. Washington Nationals
Projected batting order: (1) Felipe Lopez, 2B; (2) Lastings Milledge, CF; (3) Ryan Zimmerman, 3B; (4) Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young, 1B; (5) Austin Kearns, RF: (6) Elijah Dukes or Wily Mo Pena, LF; (7) Jesus Flores or Paul Lo Duca, C; (8) Cristian Guzman, SS.
Rather than make a big splash and overpay for Andruw Jones, the Nationals adhered to the tried-and-true Jim Bowden method: They went out and acquired two young outfielders, Milledge and Dukes, with untapped potential and sketchy reputations.
A few questions have to be answered for the Nationals to improve upon their major league-low 673 runs scored. Can Milledge and Pena learn to hit a breaking ball? Can Johnson return to have an impact after missing an entire season with a broken leg? If so, where does Young play? And while the Nationals insist that Zimmerman will be ready by spring training, he's undergone two surgical procedures on his wrist this winter.
29. Kansas City Royals
Current batting order: (1) David DeJesus, CF; (2) Mark Grudzielanek, 2B; (3) Mark Teahen, 1B or LF; (4) Jose Guillen, RF; (5) Ross Gload or Emil Brown, 1B or LF; (6) Billy Butler, DH; (7) Alex Gordon, 3B; (8) John Buck, C; (9) Tony Pena Jr., SS.
The Royals have two potential stars in Butler and Gordon. But the kids aren't ready to carry a Mike Sweeney-caliber load just yet, so manager Trey Hillman might ease them along lower down in the order.
Guillen posted a .616 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers -- just a tick behind Manny Ramirez's .617 -- and he adds some balance and sock to a lineup that was vulnerable against lefties in 2007.
The Royals need more production from Teahen, whose strikeouts rose from 85 to 127 while his homers dipped from 18 to seven. Ouch.
Current batting order: (1) Dave Roberts, LF; (2) Omar Vizquel, SS; (3) Randy Winn, RF; (4) Ray Durham, 2B; (5) Rich Aurilia or Dan Ortmeier, 1B; (6) Bengie Molina, C; (7) Kevin Frandsen, 3B; (8) Fred Lewis or Rajai Davis, CF.
Did you know the Giants ranked last in the majors in 2007 with a .387 slugging percentage -- and that was with Barry Bonds?
Now that Bonds is gone, San Francisco has a mix of veterans past their primes and young players who aren't as good as the talent the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers are running out there.
The Giants made a run at Miguel Cabrera, but you never got the sense that they were really in it. The fact that general manager Brian Sabean is even considering a "Tim Lincecum for Alex Rios or Hideki Matsui" deal shows you how desperate San Francisco is for offense these days.
1dInterview by Buster Olney
23hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com